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SAN vs Wildcard certificates

When it comes to securing your online presence, understanding the differences between a Subject Alternative Name (SAN) certificate and a wildcard certificate is crucial. Both SAN and wildcard certificates play key roles in providing security for websites, but they have distinct features that cater to different needs. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the specifics of SAN vs wildcard certificates, exploring their unique characteristics, use cases, advantages, and disadvantages. By the end of this in-depth analysis, you will have a clear understanding of which certificate best suits your requirements for a secure and reliable online presence.

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Introduction to SAN and Wildcard Certificates

What are SAN Certificates?

SAN certificates, also known as Subject Alternative Name certificates, serve a vital role in online security. These digital certificates allow multiple domain names to be secured under a single certificate. SAN certificates are particularly useful for organizations that manage several domains or subdomains and aim to streamline their certificate management process. Instead of purchasing individual certificates for each domain, a SAN certificate can secure several different domains, subdomains, and public IP addresses, all at once. This flexibility makes the SAN certificate a cost-effective and efficient solution for businesses that have a complex web infrastructure or provide a variety of online services. By consolidating their digital security into a single SAN certificate, businesses can simplify their security protocols while ensuring robust protection for their varied online assets.

Understanding Wildcard certificates

Wildcard certificates are another digital security certificate used to secure a main domain and an unlimited number of its subdomains. With a wildcard certificate, any subdomain of the main domain is automatically secured, which makes it a straightforward and scalable option for businesses with a large number of subdomains. The main feature of a wildcard certificate is its ability to protect multiple subdomains without the need for individual certificates for each one. This is represented by the inclusion of an asterisk (*) in the domain name, for example, *.example.com. This ensures that all existing and future subdomains, like shop.example.com or blog.example.com, are covered. Wildcard certificates are particularly beneficial for growing businesses that anticipate the need to continuously add new subdomains, as they help to reduce administrative burden and costs associated with obtaining and managing multiple certificates.

Differences between SAN and Wildcard Certificates

Unique features of SAN certificates

SAN certificates stand out due to their capacity to secure multiple distinct domain names, subdomains, and even IP addresses with a single certificate. A unique feature of SAN certificates is their versatility; they are not limited to securing only subdomains of a single domain. For instance, a SAN certificate can secure www.example.com, www.example.net, and mail.example.org simultaneously. This makes them exceptionally suitable for businesses that operate across various domain names. Additionally, SAN certificates are compatible with the Unified Communications Certificate (UCC) standard, which was originally developed for securing multiple domain names for Microsoft Exchange and Office Communications servers. Their flexibility in securing various services and applications under different domain names is particularly advantageous for enterprises that require a robust and comprehensive online security solution across multiple platforms and communication channels.

Distinctive characteristics of Wildcard Certificates

The primary distinctive characteristic of wildcard certificates is their use of an asterisk (*) as a placeholder in the domain name to represent any number of subdomains. This wildcard notation means that a single certificate can secure unlimited first-level subdomains affiliated with the primary domain. For example, a wildcard certificate for *.example.com will automatically secure payment.example.com, support.example.com, and any other subdomain. This makes wildcard certificates incredibly efficient for organizations needing to secure multiple subdomains without the hassle of managing separate certificates for each one. It's important to note that wildcard certificates are limited to one level of subdomains and do not secure multiple levels (e.g., *.*.example.com is not valid). Wildcard certificates are an ideal solution for businesses that have a heavy subdomain structure under a single main domain, looking for a simple and scalable security option.

Pros and cons of SAN and Wildcard certificates

Advantages and disadvantages of SAN Certificates

SAN certificates offer significant advantages, such as the ability to secure multiple domain names and subdomains across different top-level domains (TLDs) with a single certificate. This is particularly useful for businesses that operate multiple services requiring distinct domain names. SAN certificates also provide flexibility and scalability, allowing additional domain names to be added to the certificate as the business grows or changes. This can simplify certificate management and reduce the administrative overhead associated with managing multiple SSL certificates.

However, there are some disadvantages to consider. SAN certificates tend to be more expensive than single domain or wildcard certificates due to their expanded coverage. Also, each domain secured by a SAN certificate is listed in the certificate details, which can be viewed publicly. This may inadvertently disclose the existence of related domains or services that a business might prefer to keep private. Lastly, managing a SAN certificate requires careful administration, as any changes or additions to the secured domains necessitate an update to the certificate.

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Benefits and drawbacks of Wildcard certificates

Wildcard certificates offer the primary benefit of convenience and cost-effectiveness for securing an unlimited number of subdomains under a single domain. This can be a cost-saver for businesses that manage many subdomains and prefer a straightforward approach to their digital security. Wildcard certificates also simplify the management process, as administrators do not need to issue new certificates for each new subdomain created, making it highly scalable for growing businesses.

However, there are drawbacks to consider. Wildcard certificates can present a security risk if not managed properly; if one subdomain is compromised, all subdomains under the wildcard are potentially at risk. This could lead to a more significant breach than with individual certificates. Additionally, they do not support multiple domain names or subdomains across different TLDs, which limits their use to one specific domain. Lastly, the use of wildcard certificates may not be allowed by certain corporate policies or may not meet some regulatory standards that require more granular control over each subdomain's security.

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Use cases for SAN and Wildcard certificates

When to use SAN certificates

SAN certificates are particularly beneficial in environments where multiple domain names need to be secured, and these domains are not necessarily subdomains of a common base domain. For instance, a company with different product lines or services that operates under multiple top-level domains would be an ideal candidate for a SAN certificate. This includes businesses that have distinct brands with separate domain names, or organizations managing multiple SaaS platforms each requiring a unique domain.

They are also well-suited for securing Microsoft Exchange or Office Communications servers where multiple services across various domains need to be consolidated under a single certificate. Companies looking for flexibility to add or change the named domains over time without reissuing certificates will find SAN certificates to be a fitting solution. This use case is prevalent in dynamic business environments where agility and swift adaptation to market changes are necessary.

When to use Wildcard certificates

Wildcard certificates are best used when a business has a main domain with a large number of subdomains that all need SSL protection. They are ideal for organizations whose websites are structured with multiple subdomains for different functions, such as customer service portals, regional sites, and product catalogs. For example, a wildcard certificate for *.example.com can secure store.example.com, blog.example.com, and login.example.com.

They are also particularly useful for businesses that are scaling quickly, as they allow for the addition of new subdomains without the need to issue new certificates for each one. This can greatly reduce the administrative burden and the overall cost of SSL certificate management. However, wildcard certificates are not suitable for securing multiple distinct domain names or providing SSL for services that require certificates from different domain levels. They are a straightforward solution for businesses with a clear, consolidated domain strategy.

Final thoughts on SAN vs Wildcard certificates

In the debate of SAN vs wildcard certificates, the decision ultimately hinges on the specific needs of your online environment. SAN certificates are a versatile choice for securing multiple, distinct domain names, providing a high degree of flexibility and control. They are well-suited for complex organizational structures or businesses that manage different brands under separate domains.

On the other hand, wildcard certificates offer a simple and cost-effective solution for businesses with numerous subdomains under a single domain. They allow for seamless scalability and ease in certificate management, though they may carry certain security risks if one subdomain becomes compromised.

It's crucial to assess your long-term digital strategy, the potential for expansion, the need for streamlined management, and your overall security requirements when choosing between these options. Regardless of your choice, the importance of protecting your online presence with the appropriate SSL/TLS certificate cannot be overstated in today's digital landscape.

If you're not sure where to start you can either take a look at our SSL certificates page or contact sales.

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